Fans of W.C. Fields know that throughout his 41 films he always played some version of his irascible self, usually with one of the following variations: 1) a middle-class small town everyman with a hen-pecking wife; 2) a florrid-tongued circus showman or melodrama actor; 3) his literal self, Bill Fields, Hollywood star; and, on one memorable occasion, Dickens’ Micawber. The latter especially tantalizes, given that Fields was such an inveterate fan of 19th century literature of the likes of Dickens and Twain.
At any rate, during his lifetime as now, because Fields was such a known quantity he was easy to cast and doing so was fun — it stirred the imagination. Here are some roles discussed by Fields, the studios and various creative teams during his career which, for one reason or another sadly never came to pass:
- Show Boat. The role of Cap’n Andy in the original stage production of the classic musical was originally conceived for Fields (largely on the strength of his excellence as Eustace McGarrigle in Poppy), but he was busy with other projects when they had to get the production on its feet in 1927. He did eventually get to appear briefly in the role in a regional production for 2 weeks in St Louis a few years later. Charles Winninger played the part on Broadway. In various film versions it ended up being played by Winninger and Joe E. Brown. The closest Fields got on screen was the river boat captain in Mississippi.
- The Pickwick Papers. Fields was spoken of as a possibility for playing Samuel Pickwick, Esq. in the Dickens classic no less than four times: initially in a silent D.W. Griffith version in the 1920s, then later in 1935, then in the early 1940s, and finally in a 1943 version to have been directed by Orson Welles. Who wants to rewrite history? I do!
- The Wild Man of Borneo. Herman J. Manciewicz and Marc Connelly wrote the original play, and the lead role of a medicine show con man was initially talked about for W.C. Fields. When the film was eventually made in 1941, the part went to Frank Morgan. That proved to be the SECOND time Morgan would substitute for Fields.
- Quick Lunch. This proposed comedy would have reunited Fields with his old silent comedy co-star Chester Conklin. The pair were to have played a couple of waiters
- Fericke, The Guest Artist. Based on a German novel, the screenplay was written by Gene Fowler and Ben Hecht, was to be directed by George Cukor, and would have co-starred Marie Dressler. The latter detail is especially tantalizing: think how good Fields was in combination with similar actresses like Alison Skipworth and Pauline Lord. Unfortunately, Dressler passed away in 1934, so it wasn’t to be.
- Three Pair. This would have been a sequel to Six of a Kind, reuniting him with Skipworth.
- Greasepaint. For this one I have nothing beyond the intriguing and appropriate sounding title.
- Hearts and Flowers. Eddie Cline, with whom Fields often worked, directed a silent movie by this title in 1919 starring Ford Sterling and Louise Fazenda. Whether or not this was to be a remake of that one, I don’t know.
- Things Began to Happen. Was set in England and would have co-starred his drinking buddy John Barrymore.
- The Need of Change, based on a popular Julian Street novella about tourists in England. Fields had long wanted to do this but ill-health kept him from it when it came close to fruition.
- Rip Van Winkle. The title role of course!
- Don Quixote. Again, the title role. With his pretentiousness and mock bravado, it might have made a great fit.
- Don’t Look Now
- The Count of Luxembourg. Presumably an adaptation of the comic operetta. Read a description here.
- Mr. Bumpus Goes to London
- Topper. Fields and Jean Harlow were Hal Roach’s original choices to play the lead characters in this 1937 screwball ghost story classic. What a different movie that would have been!
- An unnamed Harold Lloyd collaboration, in the late ’30s. It’s intriguing if nothing else. Perhaps Lloyd in a Grady Sutton type role, a ne’er-do-well son-in-law?
- The Wizard of Oz. This is perhaps Fields’ best known never-was. Fields and MGM actually got quite far long in their negotiations but in the end could not get together on money. In the final analysis, one can only have partial regret, for in 1939 Fields made You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man instead.
- A “South American story” was discussed, no doubt in the same climate in which Welles made It’s All True and Walt Disney made The Three Caballeros
- A story about a “theatrical mother and infant, who aces the father out of the picture”
- Falstaff. The above scenarios were all actual productions that were discussed by various studios and Fields. To my knowledge, Field as Shakespeare’s Falstaff was never tossed around by the same parties but CRITICS often mentioned the possibility, and so I leave that as the last delicious daydream, for it would have been hilarious. And while we’re at it, what about Sir Toby Belch?
To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To learn about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.